Revealing the adaptive responses of ecological, social, and economic systems to a transforming biosphere is crucial for understanding system resilience and preventing collapse. However, testing the theory that underpins complex adaptive system organization (e.g., panarchy theory) is challenging. We used multivariate time series modeling to identify scale-specific system organization and, by extension, apparent resilience mechanisms. We used a 20-year time series of invertebrates and phytoplankton from 26 Swedish lakes to test the proposition that a few key-structuring environmental variables at specific scales create discontinuities in community dynamics. Cross-scale structure was manifested in two independent species groups within both communities across lakes. The first species group showed patterns of directional temporal change, which was related to environmental variables that acted at broad spatiotemporal scales (reduced sulfate deposition, North Atlantic Oscillation). The second species group showed fluctuation patterns, which often could not be explained by environmental variables. However, when significant relationships were found, species–group trends were predicted by variables (total organic carbon, nutrients) that acted at narrower spatial scales (i.e., catchment and lake). Although the sets of environmental variables that predicted the species groups differed between phytoplankton and invertebrates, the scale-specific imprints of keystone environmental variables for creating cross-scale structure were clear for both communities. Temporal trends of functional groups did not track the observed structural changes, suggesting functional stability despite structural change. Our approach allows for identifying scale-specific patterns and processes, thus providing opportunities for better characterization of complex adaptive systems organization and dynamics. This, in turn, holds potential for more accurate evaluation of resilience in disparate system types (ecological, social, economic).